Kari Polanyi Levitt

Emerita Professor of Economics, McGill University, Montreal – Canada

Biography

Professor Kari Levitt was born in Vienna in 1923, only child of Karl Polanyi and Ilona Duczynska. In 1933 Karl emigrated to England followed by Kari in 1934 and Ilona in 1936. Kari attended Bedales School (1936-1940) and the London School of Economics from 1941-1943 at the wartime Cambridge campus and in London from 1945-1947 – interrupted by two years of national war service with the Research Department of the Amalgamated Engineering Union in South London. In 1946 she participated in the historic study of the Effects of Allied Strategic Bombing on the German War Economy directed by Nicholas Kaldor. With a small staff, in less time, the study came to the same conclusion as a similar larger, American study, directed by John Kenneth Galbraith, that aerial bombardment of industrial cities had the perverse effect of increasing German war production. She graduated from LSE with First Class Honours in 1947, specializing in statistics.

Kari met Canadian historian Joseph Levitt in wartime London, on leaves from active service in the Canadian armed forces in Italy and Normandy. She joined him in Canada in 1947. They were married in Toronto in 1950 where their sons Tom and Harry were born. In Toronto she engaged in labour research and edited a monthly 16-page tabloid for the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union. In 1947 Karl Polanyi obtained an appointment as a visiting professor at Columbia University, but Ilona was unable to join him in New York on account of McCarthyist legislation. She established a home in Canada on the outskirts of Toronto near Pickering, Ontario where Karl visited on Christmas, Easter and summer vacations until his retirement from teaching in 1953. Kari, Joe and the children were frequent visitors as were Karl’s Columbia students and many others including Marshall McLuhan accompanied by his many children who enjoyed playing on the shores of the Rouge river.

In 1957 Kari returned to graduate studies in economics at the University of Toronto and obtained her MA in 1959. With a thesis hardly started she accepted an appointment in the Department of Economics of McGill University, Montreal in 1961. As a junior member of the Department she was required to teach an array of courses but her academic interest was in development economics and techniques of economic planning, including input-output and linear programming. From 1965 until the final completion of the work in 1975, she directed a major project of construction of input-output tables for the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, at Statistics Canada.

In the mid 1960s she was asked by the New Democratic Party of Canada to develop a position paper on the issue of foreign ownership. In this context she analysed the effects of foreign direct investment on the host country, illustrated by the case of Canada. An early version of this work was published in 1968 in the New World Quarterly, a Caribbean journal of political and cultural commentary, as ‘Economic Dependence and Political Disintegration: The Case of Canada’. (see Caribbean connection) Further work based on this manuscript resulted in the publication of Silent Surrender: The Multinational Corporation in Canada in 1970. The book was reprinted many times, and translated to French as La capitulation tranquile with an introduction by Jacques Parizeau, then professor at HEC. In 2001 it was reissued with a new introduction. The work was a minor classic of Canadian political economy and suggested that the American ownership of Canadian industry would result in national disintegration and the loss of sovereignty.

During these years Professor Levitt was in constant contact with Caribbean colleagues and from 1966-68 directed a project jointly with Lloyd Best on externally propelled growth and industrialization in the Caribbean at the Center for Developing Areas Studies at McGill. This joint work remained unpublished for many years until Kari was able to resume preparation of the manuscript with Lloyd Best during her stays in Trinidad from 2002, until his death in 2007, and was published as “Essays in Plantation Economy” in 2009. In the early 1970s, Kari took several years of part-time leave from McGill to work for the government of Trinidad and Tobago on a system of national economic accounts as a database for the country’s next economic plan and accepted appointments at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Jamaica as visiting professor. (see Caribbean connection)

Concerned that development economics as a distinct branch of study was threatened with marginalization by a counter revolution in economics in the early 1980s, Professor Levitt initiated a project on ‘The State of Development Studies in Canada’ with the collaboration of Ayse Bugra Trak. Interviews were conducted at universities across Canada and a comprehensive review of development literature with special emphasis on development economics was prepared. In an effort to institutionalise development studies Professor Levitt was instrumental in the foundation of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development. In 1982 she produced Canadian Policy in the Caribbean, a 300-page report to the Sub-Committee of the Standing Committee on External Affairs and National Defense of the Canadian House of Commons.

In the 1980s Kari was also occupied with the responsibility of the literary legacy of Karl Polanyi which passed to her on the death of her mother, Ilona, in 1978. When Kari returned from Jamaica in 1980, she sought assistance to sort and catalogue a large body of correspondence, lectures and manuscripts and initiated negotiations with authorities in Hungary for the re-internment of the earthly remains of Karl and Ilona Polanyi in Budapest. This event formed part of the program of the centennial conference celebrating the life and work of Karl Polanyi in 1986. The proceedings were published as The Life and Work of Karl Polanyi in 1990. In 1987 Concordia University accepted a proposal by Dr. Marguerite Mendell to establish the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy and Professor Levitt made the Polanyi archive available. The Second International Karl Polanyi Conference was held at Concordia in 1988. The institute has organized bi-annual international Karl Polanyi conferences, in locations as diverse as Montreal, Mexico City, Budapest and Istanbul among others. The Vienna conference of 1994 resulted in the publication of the edited volume Karl Polanyi in Vienna (1999). In November 2004 the Hungarian Academy of Sciences made Professor Levitt an honorary member. On that occasion she delivered an address on ‘Development and Regionalism: Karl Polanyi’s Ideas and the Contemporary World System’ (see Articles)

In the last years of teaching at McGill, now with the rank of full professor, Kari was able to specialize exclusively in the area of the economics of development with special reference to Latin American and Caribbean economic history and development. She retired from McGill in 1992 as Emerita Professor but continued to teach at the Consortium Graduate School of Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica until 1995 and as George Beckford professor in the Department of Economics until 1997. Her collection of the work of George Beckford was published in 2000, and her work on Caribbean political economy was published as Reclaiming Development: Independent Thought and Caribbean Community in 2005. Her latest book, “From the Great Transformation to the Great Financialization: on Karl Polanyi and other essays” was published in 2013.

In recent years Kari returned to an incomplete manuscript on theories of economic development written in the 1990s. This project, entitled “Economics and the Development Discourse in Historical Perspective” is funded by the IDRC and the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council.

In 2008 Kari was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies, as well as the John Kenneth Galbraith Prize from the Progressive Economics Forum, jointly with Mel Watkins.

Reclaiming Democracy: The Social Justice in the Political Economy of Gregory Baum and Kari Levitt. Ed. Marguerite Mendell. McGill-Queens Press, Montreal, 2005

This book was created thanks to the Karl Polanyi Institute and edited by the Director of the Institute, Margie Mendell on the 75th birthday of Kari Levitt and Gregory Buam.

Among those who contributed to the section on Kari’s life and work were Mel Watkins, Samir Amin, Lloyd Best, Norman Girvan and Michael Witter.

More information is also available in three recent interviews with Kari:

With Michele Rioux, in Interventions Economiques.

With David Simon, in Contemporary Social Science.